Today I’d like to welcome Susan Spann to Ascroft, eh? Susan is here to tell us about her new novel, Trial on Mount Koya.
Welcome Susan. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
SS: Although TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA is the sixth Hiro Hattori mystery, it’s designed to stand alone, so readers don’t have to be familiar with Hiro and Father Mateo’s previous adventures to enjoy this book.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
SS: TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA is my love letter to Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE—a book I’ve loved since childhood—and also inspired by my love for Mount Kōya, a sacred peak that has been described as “the beating heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.”
I first traveled to Kōya three years ago, and knew the moment I set eyes on its thousand year-old temples, towering trees, and spectacular mountain vistas that I needed to take my characters—and readers—to visit this amazing place.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
SS: I strive for the greatest possible accuracy in my historical details. In the past, I’ve changed entire plots to avoid deviations from history, and whenever possible I try to weave historical events and historical figures into my novels—taking care to portray them as accurately as possible.
Each of my novels involves a mystery set against a different aspect of 16th century Japanese culture, in part because I love to explore (and share) the unique and exciting details of life in this special time and place. Like many readers, I love to feel immersed in a historical time and place, and I love it more when the details are correct—so I strive for accuracy in my novels, too.
What research did you do for this book?
SS: In addition to reading a dozen different books on everything from Shingon Buddhism to the history of Kōyasan, I made three trips to Kōya, where I stayed in thousand year-old temples, ate shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine—a vegetarian style of cooking that’s also my favorite kind of food in Japan), and talked with Shingon priests. I also traveled to several other locations in Japan to look at statues and other original artistic representations of the Jusanbutsu—the Buddhist judges of the afterlife—to ensure that I had the details right.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
SS: Writing fictitious versions of real historical figures is a great responsibility—these people really lived, and I feel the burden of doing justice to their legacies and lives. It’s one thing to put words in the mouth of a character I created—I feel the weight of history, accuracy, and culture there as well, but if I give my detective a character flaw, I’m not misrepresenting who a person truly was.
On the other hand, it’s exciting to get to imagine how famous people like ninja commander Hattori Hanzō and Oda Nobunaga—a Japanese warlord who sought to become the shogun and rule Japan—might have acted, thought, and felt.
At the end of the day, I have yet to write a character that was easy, or that I didn’t love by the time the book was finished.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
SS: When I research a place and time, I try to involve all five of my senses: On Kōyasan, I attended the fire ceremony and watched the flames transform the prayers written on wooden sticks into smoke that carried those prayers to heaven. I smelled the spicy incense and the wood smoke from the fire, heard the drums and chants, and felt the roughness of tatami mats beneath my knees. After the ceremony, I ate the food these priests have eaten for a thousand years—the sour pickled plums, the tofu made from savory sesame seeds instead of soy, and the roasted tea that lingers on the tongue. When writing my novels, I try to include as many sensory experiences as I can, to transport the readers to that time and place.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
SS: Although my protagonists are both male (a necessary choice, because of the greater mobility offered to men of samurai rank in 16th century Japan) I love that I have the ability to include realistic but unexpected female characters in my novels—for example, Trial on Mount Koya includes a female samurai trained as a warrior (the Japanese term for these women is onna-bugeisha). Many readers don’t realize the wide range of activities women could engage in during this time in Japanese history—women were business owners, sake merchants, and moneylenders, as well as warriors. Even though such women were in the minority in many cases, they did exist, and I love to include them in my novels.
I strive to include a wide range of characters—male and female, old and young, from all social classes and all walks of life. Not only does it make the books more accurate, but I think it makes them more interesting too.
Thanks for answering my questions, Susan, and good luck with Trial on Mount Koya, your latest novel in the Hiro Hattori mystery series.
For more information about Susan, please visit her website. You can find Susan on Facebook and Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded the #PubLaw hashtag to provide legal and business information for writers.
Trial on Mount Koya is available from online retailers, including the following:
About Susan Spann: Susan is the award-winning author of the Hiro Hattori mystery novels, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. She began reading precociously and voraciously from her preschool days in Santa Monica, California, and as a child read everything from National Geographic to Agatha Christie.
A yearning to experience different cultures sent Susan to Tufts University in Boston, where she immersed herself in the history and culture of China and Japan. After earning an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies, Susan diverted to law school. She returned to California to practice law, where her continuing love of books has led her to specialize in intellectual property, business and publishing contracts. Her interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Shinobi Mystery series featuring Hiro Hattori, a sixteenth-century ninja who brings murderers to justice with the help of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest.
Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year, a former president of the Northern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (National and Sacramento chapters), the Historical Novel Society, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. She is represented by literary agent Sandra Bond of Bond Literary Agency.
When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, martial arts, photography, and hiking. She lives in Sacramento with her husband and two cats, and travels to Japan on a regular basis.